Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney

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Introduction

In the year 2000, Capcom released a sequel to their 1999 survival horror game, Dino Crisis. The original was directed by Shinji Mikami, who also created the Resident Evil series, but one of his subordinates at the time, Shu Takumi, handled the sequel’s development. Upon completing his work on Dino Crisis 2, Mr. Mikami allotted Mr. Takumi six months to create his own game. As Mr. Takumi had joined Capcom in 1994 hoping to create adventure and mystery games, he knew this would be his chance to make his mark as a full-fledged developer.

Development of this new project started in 2001. It was originally slated for release on the Game Boy Color, but once the team discovered the system’s successor, the Game Boy Advance, Mr. Takumi deemed the new handheld console perfect for his vision. At first, Mr. Takumi wished to make a game about a private investigator who found the dead body of his client in his office and was subsequently arrested for the murder. He was then appointed an incompetent attorney, forcing the detective to defend himself in court. The working title was “Surviban: Attorney Detective Naruhodo-kun” with Surviban being a portmanteau of the English word, “survival,” and the Japanese word, “saiban” (court or trial). Eventually, Mr. Takumi realized that examining and taking apart contradictions wasn’t exactly detective work and decided to make the courtroom the game’s primary setting with the lawyer being the protagonist instead. Although the project was in danger of being canceled at one point due to two staff members leaving the company, development went smoothly, as it only took ten months to finish. The game, Turnabout Trial, was released in October of 2001 whereupon it received a dedicated following, though Capcom expressed no interest in expanding their audience to include overseas fans.

This all changed four years later when the game was remade for the DS, Nintendo’s next handheld console following the Game Boy Advance. Capcom decided to take a chance by outsourcing the burden of localization to a company called Bowne Global. It was handled by a writer named Alexander O. Smith, who had experience translating works such as Final Fantasy VIII and Star Ocean: Till the End of Time, along with editor Steve Anderson. October of 2005 would mark the debut of Turnabout Trial in the West under the name Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney. It seemed as though it was doomed to fall into obscurity thanks to its dismal initial sales figures, but it received exceedingly positive word of mouth, and the game suddenly became very difficult to find as demand exceeded supply. The third printing sold out within a week, and online auctions would see enthusiasts pay double the retail price for a copy. How was this game able to strike such a chord with its newfound Western audience?

Analyzing the Experience

A woman was found dead in her apartment in a pool of her own blood. Her boyfriend, Larry Butz, has been arrested and subsequently accused of her murder. With no one else to turn to, Larry calls upon an attorney fresh out of law school, Phoenix Wright, to defend him in court. Having known each other since elementary school, Phoenix takes on the case despite his inexperience.

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This is where you come in. The goal of Phoenix Wright is to defend your falsely accused clients in court. One unfamiliar with Ace Attorney would doubtlessly wonder how a game set in the courtroom could possibly be interesting. The answer, which becomes clear as the trial unfolds, is that there are a few creative liberties with the real-world court system to prevent the experience from becoming boring. To begin with, you only ever deal with murder trials. Considering the serious penalties one would receive upon conviction, up to and including death, it gives the player a motivation from the onset: to prevent such a fate from befalling an innocent person.

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The prosecutor acts as a representative of the state by asserting the case being made against the accused. They can add credibility to their claim by submitting evidence to the court record and calling witnesses to testify on their behalf. After a witness gives their testimony, this is your opportunity to cross-examine them. You can press individual statements to make them elaborate. Sometimes by doing this, they will add another statement to their testimony or revise an old one. The key to cracking these testimonies is to examine the evidence closely. Similar to a real court, the records could include material evidence, sworn statements, and other important notes. If certain details don’t match up to their account of what happened, this is your opportunity to call them out on it. Speaking hypothetically, if the witness claims they found the victim’s body at 1:30pm while official documentation estimates the time of death between 4:00pm to 5:00pm, you can unravel the witness’s lie by presenting the autopsy report.

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The game does mix it up in that not all of the witnesses are necessarily lying; they could merely be under a false impression. Whatever the case may be, it typically falls upon you to deduce why they’re trying to deceive the court or how they drew an incorrect conclusion. When asked to explain the discrepancy by the judge or the prosecution, you often have to answer a multiple choice question and then follow that up with presenting evidence to back up this new claim. You must think carefully when stating your claims, for each major mistake will result in a penalty. If you incur five, the defendant is found guilty and the game is over.

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If the entire game was set in a courtroom, it would make for a monotonous experience. Outside of court, you can investigate the crime scene to help piece together how the murder came about. These segments feature an interface similar to classic point-and-click adventure games, and there are several set pieces to examine. Some objects are strictly there to move the case forward while others result in humorous conversations between the main character and his assistant when examined – sometimes, they can be both. Another method of gathering information is to directly question witnesses. You can present evidence to them either to get a unique reaction out of them or whenever it’s required by the plot.

Phoenix Wright manages to accomplish the seemingly impossible task of transforming an otherwise mundane scenario into an experience that is equal parts engrossing and suspenseful. Even the simplest of cases tend to have complex backstories that help gradually build a world. The Ace Attorney universe is one in which the odds are overwhelmingly stacked against defense attorneys. Unusually, it’s not because the judge is biased; instead, he’s a bit fickle and has a bad habit of deferring to the prosecution whenever possible. Many prosecutors in this setting have gone years without losing a case, and they will stop at nothing to achieve a “guilty” verdict. No matter what you do, reasonable doubt isn’t enough to prove your client’s innocence. Therefore, the main method of winning cases in Ace Attorney is to find the real culprit and make them confess.  Because of this, it’s more accurate to sum up Phoenix Wright as a murder mystery than a genuine courtroom simulator. Luckily, this works to your favor, as it means you don’t require legal knowledge to enjoy this game. All trials are resolved in three days, and there is no jury to convince; your client’s fate rests solely on the judge’s decision. He will always hand down a “not guilty” verdict when the culprit is exposed.

A lot of this could be written off as necessary consequences of making a game out of courtroom battles; it would be terribly anticlimactic to end a murder mystery without unmasking the true killer. The truth is that the length Phoenix Wright must go to in order to acquit his clients has some basis in reality. When the story of this game was written, the Japanese criminal justice system boasted a high conviction rate – over ninety-nine percent of cases prosecuted would end with the defendant being found guilty. There are numerous reasons for this ranging from judges’ reputations being negatively impacted should they issue a “not guilty” verdict to the culture encouraging the accused to confess and not bring any more shame onto their family with a prolonged trial.

One of the most successful defense attorneys in the country, a professor at Waseda University named Takashi Takano, has only ever exonerated five clients in a span of nearly twenty-five years. The worst part is that this wouldn’t be considered a bad record – countless attorneys go their entire career without winning a single case. Conversely, prosecutors can go years without tasting defeat. Because of this, it stands to reason that a sizeable portion of those convicted were victims of circumstance due to a miscarriage of justice. In light of this information, Phoenix Wright could be interpreted as a scathing satire. Although the defendants don’t always confess, the murder plots are never straightforward. Proving their complexity demonstrates the danger of systems that take everything at face value while gleefully overlooking details which could be interpreted in any number of ways.

Despite this, Phoenix Wright is not all doom and gloom – far from it, in fact. This is a game where people can channel the dead, the villains have over-the-top breakdowns when caught, and the protagonist often quarrels with his assistant over the nature of ladders. One would think this mixture of tones would make the story difficult to take seriously, but it works surprisingly well. Mr. Takumi is good at appropriating a fitting tone for the scenes he writes. The silly moments have good comedic timing, and when the game does decide to get serious, the jokes cease, allowing the full weight of the situation to sink in. |Indeed, despite being presented in an episodic format, the plot of the game revolves around an unsolved murder from fifteen years prior to Phoenix Wright’s courtroom debut dubbed the DL-6 Incident. Whenever it gets brought up, you learn of how many lives, named and unnamed, were negatively impacted as a result of it.|

I think another reason it works so well is because the murder mystery genre was tailor-made for video games. Picking apart witnesses’ testimonies in court is an effective method of getting the player to remember meticulous details they would largely ignore in equivalent works in non-interactive mediums. When watching a film, the audience can place their bets on how the mystery will pan out, but it’s still a passive observation, which doesn’t capture the same tension and intrigue actively conducting the investigation for oneself produces. It’s true this mostly amounts to finding all the important hotspots on each screen and exhausting a list of dialogue options, but the situations are interesting enough that it never feels repetitive.

Perhaps the biggest contribution to the success of Phoenix Wright is its translation. Alexander O. Smith had experience translating AAA games by the time he and the rest of Bowne Global were given the task of localizing Phoenix Wright for a Western audience. This presented more than a few problems, as the original script features a lot of wordplay with characters having meaningful names and an early episode involves time zones, leaving little ambiguity as to where the story is set. As a solution to this, Mr. Smith decided to set the game in Los Angeles, and the characters’ names are often puns that capture the meaning of their Japanese counterparts. For example, in Japan, the protagonist’s family name is Naruhodo, roughly meaning “I see” or “I understand” while in the West, Wright is a play on “right.” This could not only be used as a substitution for “I see,” but also allude to the character’s strong sense of justice. Many scenes required extensive reimagining, and a straight translation was often infeasible. In the face of these nearly insurmountable odds, it’s astonishing how strong the localization ended up being. Its only real issue is how the proceedings don’t paint an accurate picture of the American court system, but it’s easy to suspend one’s disbelief when reminded that lawyers aren’t usually supposed to find the killer and make them confess on the stand either.

This isn’t to say Phoenix Wright is flawless, however. One irritating aspect of this game is that there are several instances when you need to do something monumentally foolish in order to progress. |No fewer than two times are you made to present incriminating evidence to the culprit outside of court. Although one of these events results in a piece of decisive evidence being produced, it ultimately comes across as a contrived plot device and a poor attempt at creating drama.| This isn’t what I would call a deal-breaker, but I can imagine practical individuals being unable to overlook them. If so, I couldn’t blame them.

Moreover, there are a few times when the right piece of evidence isn’t the least bit obvious, forcing players to try every possible combination until they are allowed to advance. It’s not necessarily due to a lack of lateral thinking either – it could be that the player thought they spotted a legitimate contradiction the game didn’t seem to consider or they had the right idea, but didn’t know how to express it with the interface. In spite of its few shortcomings, I would say Phoenix Wright hits far more often than it misses, and discovering the solutions to these difficult puzzles has a sense of satisfaction not unlike that of defeating a difficult enemy in a more action-oriented experience.

Drawing a Conclusion

Pros:

  • Excellent music
  • Great characters
  • Engaging story
  • Unique premise with interesting mechanics
  • Simple, yet effective presentation
  • Good mixture of serious and wacky tones
Cons:

  • Stupid decisions must be made to advance the plot
  • What to do next isn’t always intuitive

Phoenix Wright is not exactly the first of its kind, as Laura Bow: The Colonel’s Bequest, a title from Sierra’s catalogue made by Roberta Williams, predates it by twelve years, but it manages to succeed in many of the ways this earlier effort falls short. By featuring a likable, well-rounded cast and putting you in a position where failing to catch the killer means the condemnation of an innocent character, it gives you a reason to care even if the victim had zero redeeming qualities. For that matter, Phoenix Wright could also be seen as a spiritual successor to Yuji Horii’s The Portopia Serial Murder Case, the game that helped establish the visual novel presentation Mr. Takumi used for his own work in the first place.

It’s a bit of a shame that outside of the series’ loyal fanbase, most people know it as that game where people loudly shout, “Objection!” because actually playing it reveals there’s much more substance than what appears on the surface. It’s the first chapter in one of the medium’s greatest series of adventure games, and having been made in the 2000s, it’s mostly free of the dreaded anti-logic that permeated classic titles from the genre’s heyday. Should you try the game for yourself, I think you’ll be astonished how a lawyer and prosecutor sparring in court has the potential to be more exciting than many of the dime-a-dozen action titles floating around the market.

Final Score: 8/10

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11 thoughts on “Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney

    • Yeah, that detail didn’t cost them with this installment, but it would as soon as Justice for All. As far as I know, they don’t have plans to localize the installment that takes place in the Meiji era. In other words, it looks like they’re going to try to avoid the problem outright rather than dealing with it.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Great review. I don’t have a DS or 3DS so this series has passed me by so far, despite the fact that it sounds excellent. As it stands, the only way I can access this series (the original trilogy) is via WiiWare, and I’ve not taken the plunge yet.

    Have you tried Trauma Team? It has some Phoenix Wright-style sections which are extremely good.

    Liked by 1 person

    • If you do get a 3DS, I highly recommend those games; they have quite a lot of depth.

      Haven’t played Trauma Team, but it seems interesting. It was made by Atlus – the same people behind the Shin Megami Tensei series!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Very cool! You shared some factoids that I didn’t know about one of my favorite series of all time! I agree with you on the translation. The name puns are clever, and I laughed a lot during the first game. It makes me so happy that the game is still alive today, and I hope there are many more to come.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks! Like Dragon Quest, this was a very fun game to research. It’s interesting how effective word-of-mouth can be when it comes to a work getting a dedicated following. I would say this is my favorite series of adventure games myself. What really strikes me as amazing about the series is how consistent it’s been considering the many personnel changes. I too look forward to any sequels that await us!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Indeed! You did a great job researching fall of that! I do believe that Takumi’s original trilogy represents the game’s golden era. Apollo Justice wasn’t my favorite, but the series has redeemed itself since. The newest entry, Spirit of Justice, is solid in my books!

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: 2017, Year of Final Fantasy | Conquering the Gaming Backlog

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